It’s apparently my turn to chronicle Newt Gingrich’s astronomical rise in the crucial swing state of Florida and his generally increasing popularity nationwide. Jazz took the first stab at the trend when he highlighted an Insider Advantage poll that showed Gingrich with a 24-point lead in the Sunshine State. AP then turned it inside out with expert analysis of a PPP poll that also suggested Gingrich has a handsome — even possibly unassailable — lead in the country’s panhandle. But as yet another poll shows Gingrich dominating that oh-so-important electorally-rich southern state, a third post seems justifiable.
This particular poll comes from American Research Group, Inc., and shows Gingrich with a whopping 50 percent of support among likely Republican voters in Florida. Mitt manages to capture 19 percent — but that’s still more than 30 points behind the former Speaker of the House. Compare that to just one month ago, when Gingrich registered just 11 percent support and Romney still mustered 28 percent. At that point, Cain led the state with 34 percent. What happened, really?
Yes, Cain faltered and, yes, when voters abandon the Cain Train, they are likely to contribute to Newtmentum. And, yes, Mitt Romney has a support ceiling that nothing he does ever raises — and a surprisingly persistent opposition floor that nothing he does ever lowers. But when I ask, “What happened?” I really mean, “What did Newt ever do to dominate so thoroughly?” Allah provided a convenient list of all that Newt has done that shouldn’t impress voters — and should even turn ’em off. In this particular election cycle — when jobs and the economy are supposedly uppermost in everyone’s minds — his rise is particularly interesting, as he’s never exactly been known for his job creation prowess.
But he also has to have done something right. What was it? No question his rhetorical skills — however dependent on dramatic modifiers, as Mark Steyn has pointed out — have contributed mightily. The point has often been made that, in this particular primary race, debate skills have assumed undue importance for the simple reason that the candidates have participated in so very many debates.
He seems also to be helped by the fact that he’s both old and new. On the one hand, he’s familiar and his flaws have long since been dissected and dismissed. Cain is crumbling because of unsavory allegations against his person? Gingrich’s past mistakes have been in the open for ages — and forgiven.
On the other hand, even though he toyed with the idea in the past, he has never actually run for president before. Voters are put off by Romney’s aura of inevitability and perpetual campaign mode? Gingrich seems polished, but not overly obsessed with his candidacy — or, for that matter, the presidency.
And then there’s the matter of likability. In the first place, Gingrich — who entered the race with a reputation for a certain churlishness — has made an extra effort to run a cheerful campaign, carefully resisting the temptation to criticize his competitors but not making a self-righteous point of it (a la Jon Huntsman). In the second place, he has reached an age when crotchetiness has a kind of cachet. He can afford to attack the media because he has decades of experience with them; he’s tried to work with ’em and now he’s entitled to be cranky. In the third place, again, he has humbled himself — and hardly anything is more likable than that. He’s a tragic hero who rose and fell and, in the course of falling, recognized his tragic flaw of secular self-reliance and worked to correct it.
But if he’s likable to Republicans, he’s also proved himself willing to fight scrappily against Barack Obama. Ed has made the case that that, more than anything else, might be what makes Gingrich’s boom a lasting one. (I think Bachmann is even scrappier, though, and definitely more conservative.)
Whatever the reason for it, the rise of Newt Gingrich — more so than the rise of any previous frontrunner — has fundamentally reshaped the primary season, forcing GOP voters to decide what heresies they’re willing to overlook for the sake of nominating the only candidate other than Romney who excels at debates.
Update: These polls might be good news for Newt, but are they good news for the GOP if we really want to beat Obama in Nov. 2012? Public Policy Polling says no. Obama leads Romney in Florida by just 45 to 44, but he leads Newt by 50 to 44.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely do you think it is that Newt would beat Obama in the general?